Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Looking Through the Smoke at Mad Men

I admit it, I am a little bit behind the times. I finally got the Season I DVD of Mad Men so that I could see what all the fuss was about when this critically-acclaimed show debuted in the summer of '07. (In my defense, this was during my last year of school when all the TV I had time for was American Idol and Big Love.)

The first episode started off promisingly enough - very cool opening graphics, great theme song. I must admit, I agree with the critics who love the gorgeous visuals of this show. It is beautifully filmed and art directed, the sets and especially the costumes are perfect and fabulous. But that's where it ends for me. I just can't get past two key things:

THE SMOKING - it's disgusting and it's in every scene. In the office, in the bedroom, in the kitchen (a pregnant woman!!), in restaurants. I can't get past the visceral gut reaction that knows what that air smells like and what it is like to try to breathe in a room full of smoke. I feel like coughing through every scene. I found myself taking shallow breaths and wishing I was near an open window! I grew up in a house with a mother who was a chimney. She has severe COPD now and I'm the one taking her to doctor appointments, hospitals, and watching her go from being able-bodied to being in a wheel chair and using oxygen 24/7. So you can see why I find cigarettes disgusting. Yeah, I know that's what it was like then. But I bet the cigarette companies are just loving this series. They haven't had this kind of advertising in years -- no, decades. We find it strange now to see everyone smoking, but we're still watching beautiful, glamorous people smoking.

THE SEXISM - it's so over the top and offensive that it's painful to watch. Do people today secretly enjoy this because they wish they could treat women that way and they can live vicariously through these characters? Do women like watching this because it reinforces how far we've come? Yeah, I know that's what it was like then. But do we need to go back there week after week?

It didn't take me long to give up on the series entirely - just to the first half of the second episode, when a mother (the glorious January Jones - whom I've admired since her small role in Love Actually) admonished her daughter for playing with the dry cleaning bag because she might have left mom's clean clothes on the floor, instead of for putting the dang bag over her head. I figured I'd had enough of this time period and that the rest of the series was just going to be more of the same. My time is valuable, so the following video - Mad Men in 60 Seconds, will have to do for me:

I realize that by making this opinion public, I run the risk of being considered unsophisticated for not falling for this dark, cynical, and sexy look at the past. But I wonder about this series. Yes, it shows life in the pre-revolutionary 60s, before Gloria Steinem, Martin Luther King, and rock and roll changed everything. But there's something celebratory in revisiting this decade week after week. It's like an opportunity to be non-politically correct and yet not be accused of being non-politically correct because obviously this is a satire, right? Do viewers continue to look aghast at the racism and sexism in this show if they are avid fans? I won't find out because I won't take the time to watch, but if you're a true fan of Mad Men, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

American Idol Syndrome

For the last six years, like millions of other Americans, I've been captivated by the cultural phenomenon known as American Idol. I didn't start watching it faithfully until season 3 (the success of Kelly Clarkson and the talent of Rueben Studdard and Clay Aiken - yes, I think Clay Aiken is talented) got me interested, but the sheer brilliance of Fantasia got me hooked. I've watched the show since then, and now own CDs from Chris Daughtry, Jordin Sparks and David Cook. My daughter has Adam Lambert's new disc and has generously put some of my favorite of his tunes on my ipod for me. Last year I even downloaded some American Idol performance videos and songs. When AI had their contest in Daughtry's year to see who could pick the next singer to go home, my guesses had me in the top 50 - of the whole country!!! (That year I also went to an AI concert and watched as these musicians performed with an enthusiasm and joy that I've never seen from any of the other concerts I'd ever attended. It was as if they also couldn't believe they were actually on stage singing to thousands of screaming people, and this was absolutely the most fun they've ever had in their lives.) So I guess I qualify as a core fan.

I think AI shows America an incredible thing - a close-up view of what it's like to pursue a dream, and then the actual dream happening for someone (and as we've seen, you don't have to win it all to have your dream come true). We journey with these dreamers from their initial audition to the finale (if AI deigns to show us the audition - shame on you Idol for not including Adam Lambert's audition during the regular season), we pick our favorites and invest ourselves in their hopes and dreams as week after week (if we let them) they show us more of who they are and what they can do. And except for a few strange outcomes (Taylor Hicks!?) the cream rises to the top. It's inspiring, uplifting, and usually very entertaining.

The only downside for me in the show - the part that I hate to watch - are the beginning auditions. I watch them now to find my early favorites. And I don't mind the people who come on and know they're not good singers. They are just there to see if they can be outrageous enough to get on TV. Those aren't painful (just highly annoying, and only rarely entertaining). It's the ones who THINK they can sing and clearly cannot that are painful. First, it's not fun hearing them sing, 'cause they're lousy. Second, the judges have body language and make faces at these kids that remind me of middle schoolers. (Thank goodness Ellen DeGeneres avoided that this season - I hope she can get away with it again next year, although since Simon will be gone who knows if I'll even watch it anymore.) No, the worst part of these scenes is that we witness how much people can be deluded about their own capabilities. Sometimes after a particularly pitchy performance, I wonder how it's possible that the person can't realize that they cannot sing. And you can tell - usually - when the person really thought they had a chance and are bewildered and stung by the judges' reactions. Some are crushed. Others go right on deluding themselves. They vow to come back next year, or they say the judges are wrong, or they say something so colorful that the AI logo gets patched over their mouths - over and over again. How can someone be so blind about themselves? I just don't get it. And it worries me a little.

See, as an "emerging artist" I wonder where I would fall on the AI continuum. Would I be the equivalent of an undiscovered "Fantasia" or am I more like one of the Hollywood hopefuls that gets cut before the final pick of the top 24? Or worse yet - maybe I'm not good enough to make it to Hollywood. There are times when I feel that absolutely I am destined to make it as an artist. Lot's of people have put their faith in me. I've invested thousands of hours and thousands of dollars in pursuit of this dream. And I've sold some paintings, at good prices, to people who have discerning taste in art. I've had some paintings accepted to juried shows (and some rejected), and one solo show. When I went to the opening I did feel like my work belonged on those gallery walls. So I suppose I'm not in the category of contestants that are blind to their real lack of capability. I just worry sometimes if I'm the kind of artist that can make it past "Hollywood Week."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Art is not intimidating.

It took a long time before I would tell someone I was an artist. When that question came up, "so what do you do?" - as it usually does when getting to know a new person - something would catch in my throat and I just couldn't say "I'm an artist." But what was I if not that? Well, nothing, and for a very long time. That is - nothing that held any interest to anyone. After all, I was no longer a marketing exec in corporate America. I was "only" a stay-at-home-mom, and that, after all, generates very little discussion unless the other person is also a stay-at-home-mom. The usual response from anyone else was a smile combined with a condescending look and maybe a comment like, "oh, what a tough job - or - how wonderful that you can be at home with your kids," and then a quick change of subject or a quick move to extricate from the conversation entirely.

So I was used to that. And when I went back to school when my youngest was old enough for a full morning at pre-school, I was not at all sure I could even do this "art thing." It took seven years of part-time study (2, sometimes 3 classes a semester) before I earned my BFA in painting. And by my last year in school, I began to think of myself in a new way - as an artist. I still am a stay-at-home-mom, but now I answer "I'm an artist" when someone asks what I do. That answer usually generates quite a bit more conversation as people like to find out what kind of art I do. And invariably, if the person I'm talking to is not an artist or working in a related field, often they quickly confess a bewilderment when it comes to looking at contemporary art. I hate that people are intimidated by art, and I don't think the problem is in the viewers. I think the problem is in the art world.

So, as this is my very first post, I will simply say that art should not require a post-graduate degree to be appreciated. Art, like Torah, can be understood and appreciated on many levels. The more learned one is, the more levels one can delve into, but ultimately there should be a way to appreciate something without background, and just with one's senses. Art, at its most basic, should be impactful without a museum label, gallery guide or artist statement. Just by looking, art should communicate. I like to tell people who are intimidated by art that they should trust their instinctive reaction to something, but also take the time to really see it, and think about what they're seeing. They'll understand more about the work than they probably give themselves credit for.